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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Importing 4E Skill Challenges into Star Wars: Saga Edition

by Ken Newquist / November 11, 2008

Skill challenges were one of the best things to come out of our D&D 4th Edition playtest.  Building on earlier versions that appeared in Spycraft and Unearthed Arcana, skill challenges provided an in-game mechanic for resolving non-combat conflicts and complex tasks.

We used it to handle the exploration a lava tube complex leading to a red dragon’s volcano and an escape from an angry horde of goblins on an ice world. In both cases, we found it really enhanced our game, turning what could have another dungeoncrawl or a case of DM fiat into a dramatic, player-driven story.

It’s a good idea, and one we’ve been eager to use in our Star Wars campaign (even our anti-4E contingent  wanted to try it). We did exactly that in our third session (“Chapter 3: The Lingering Twilight”), with equally good results.

Crossing the Great Plain of Soros

In the first scenario, while in transit to a swoop bike race in the badlands of the planet Zebulon Beta, the group’s speeder broke down. To repair it, they’d need to pass a mechanics-oriented skill challenge. At the same time, the group’s Jedi would need to fend off two giant lizards attacking the speeder’s crew.

Primary Skills
It required six successes before three failures, and had primary skills of Mechanics, Knowledge (technology), Perception and Pilot.

  • Mechanics (DC 15) – Our hero tinkers with the machine, trying to coax it back into shape. Requires a tool kit.
  • Mechanics (DC 20) – “I saw this on a holovid once… he used some duct tape and a hair pin, but this should do …"
  • Knowledge (technology)(DC 20) – Our hero remembers the exact schematics of this particular speeder, and recites them from memory.
  • Perception (DC 20): Well of course – the moisture inversion manifold is broken. It’ll have to be replaced.
  • Pilot (DC 15): “You know, I had a TR-176 as a kid back home, and when the repulsors went, I remember the mechanic did this…”

Auto Fail skills:

  • Strength check: This is a delicate piece of machinery; hitting it won’t help. Instant Failure.
  • Use Computer: The computer is labeled “no customer serviceable parts” and shuts down with any attempts to run a diagnostic. It also sends out an electrical pulse that deals 1d6 damage.

The Nightside Rally

The Nightside Rally is cross-country swoop bike race held in Draco Badlands, a stretch of torturous terrain and plateaus carved from the plains by an ancient river, and now prone to landslides and flash floods. Half Burning Man, half NASCAR race, it takes place during the Darkness, a 75 hour stretch of nighttime that falls every two months on Zebulon Beta as its larger fraternal twin Zebulon Prime blocks its sunlight. The race would be run in the pitch black of the Dragon’s Tail Trench, in the form of a skill challenge.

Primary Skills

Players would need to secure nine successes before three failures with the primary skills of Endurance, Initiative, Pilot, Mechanics, Deception and Use the Force.

  • Endurance (DC 15): Putting everything you have into it, you’re able wrestle the bike into submission, gaining valuable time as others struggle with their bikes.
  • Initiative (DC 20): Deftly firing your thrusters at just the right time, you’re able to maneuver ahead of your opponents, cutting them off.
  • Pilot (DC 15): You expertly navigate the trench, avoiding your opponents.
  • Mechanics (DC 20): The stablizer fin broke loose! The starboard repulser array just went. The river bed dust just choked the main air cooler intake valve.
  • Deception (DC 15): A deft feint maneuver or some other trick helps the pilot move up.
  • Use the Force (DC 20): Drawing inspiration from Obi-Wan’s spectral ‘Use the Force’ urges to Luke (and Qui-Gon’s the pod-racing Anakin), the Jedi would be able to use the Force to aid their champion through advice, suggestions and other Force-inspired insights.

Auto Failure:

  • Persuasion (Intimidate): There’s little time for theatrics in the trench; attempting such a distraction results in instant failure as the pilot struggles to avoid hitting the trench walls.

Use The Force (and anything else you can find)

The challenges went well. Of the two, I liked the execution of the first the best; the combination of combat and mechanical challenge worked out great, even if the Jedi were pressed hard by their giant lizard opponents.

By default, Skill Challenges usually have one or two poison skills that simply won’t work in the challenge. I don’t always include these, particularly if I want to give the players an advantage, but I do like the idea that there’s one wire out there you shouldn’t cut or one turn of phrase that will get you tossed in the dungeon.

I think the key to coming up with a good poison skill is being able to justify it; in the Speeder Repair challenge, it was perfectly reasonable that they’d try the Use Computer skill to jury rig the speeder. But then again, there are plenty of times in the Star Wars trilogies where our heroes try and hotwire something and it fails, whether it’s Han screaming “No, no no, this goes here, that goes there” when they’re trying to get the Millennium Falcon off of Hoth or R2-D2 accidentally jacking into a power outlet in Cloud City.

In this case I remembered the line about “No User Serviceable Parts” from Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, and decided that was the perfect poison skill. On this model of speeder, you simply can’t get at the electronics without the proper, manufacturer supplied tool kit.

I think it worked: the look on the pilot’s face when he tried to get at the electronics black box and was shocked for six points of electrical damage was priceless, and it setup a great argument between him and my mechanic character (played partially as an NPC), made all the better by the fact that the Jedi were fighting for their lives.

The Darkside Rally Challenge was fun, but the challenge ended up being frontloaded as the Jedi used their Force talents to gaze into the future, offer insights into possible maneuvers, and generally provide every advantage they could. Going into the race, the party already had three or four successes, as well as a single failure (as they tried to scout out the race path, but weren’t able to gather all of the information they neede).

Highlife, the group’s human pilot, got to drive the swoop bike in the race, which ended up being a mix of abstracted combat and skill challenges. The two lead racers – a human named Boris Ledfoot and a Rodian swoop biker – used dirty tricks like firing blaster shots Highlife or dumping debris in his path. He ultimately one by kicking his swoop bike into overdrive with a piloting check, allowing him to cross the finish line well ahead of the others.

Part of me wishes the race had lasted a little longer, and posed more of a challenge to Highlife’s impressive piloting skills, but honestly, it worked out just fine the way it was. The party gambled on the race, and won a sizable amount of credits, which will help them buy their starship in the not-to-distant future. All in all, it had a nice “Lando bets everything and wins the Falcon” vibe to it, and I’m pleased with the results.

Comments

Hey, Ken. Nicely done. I just wish I could hear the actual play. Having struggled with skill challenges in 4e, I could use the inspiration. My main problem is the gelling of great roleplay with these skill challenge rolls. I think I get the mechanics, but it bogs me down when I'm actually trying to run it.

The shock was more from the fact that I rolled a natural 20 on the Use Computer Check making it a 27, and getting the critical failure in return. But the banter was priceless as the padawan fought for their lives (save Quest, who is a knight).

I will agree with the race being a bit too short. Thinking back it might have worked better if you made it similar to the lava tubes. There each round was a section of the tubes to be traversed. In the race, each round could have been a lap, giving the illusion of a longer race.

Regardless, it was still fun and a successful test IMHO. I look forward to future challenges! (and even working on a few of my own)

Yeah, I forgot about the critical success on that one. I'm not sure how I feel about the poison skills; on the one hand I think it works, but on the other, when you get an exceptional result, it should still feel like an exceptional result. So instead of making poison skills instant fail, they could just have crazy-high DCs (e.g. maybe 25 or 30) for the electrical engineering mishap

But yeah, I really loved the banter between Zulen and Highlife over who was at fault for the mishap. Great stuff, and I think it really helped build up the "crew" side of the party ... if only the wookie had been there too!

I agree with your thoughts on the trench run; making it a graduated skill challenge would have worked better. I think putting a cap on the number of "pre challenge" skill tests would have been helpful as well, as is I think it felt a little too front loaded.

It was a tough one because I wanted it to be a Skill Challenge, but by its very nature there would be only one primary character involved in it, so how do you keep everyone engaged? Allowing the Jedi to provide their insights was certainly one way to do it. Something else that might have worked is giving the other players NPCs to play through the Skill Challenge (basically making it an opposed challenge) and the first person to reach nine successes wins.

btw, for those who are curious, I detailed the "lava tube" skill challenge here:

http://www.nuketown.com/games/playtest/4eskillchallenges

I'm another one of Ken's players. By way of background, IMO, SWSE is the perfect blend of 3.x rules and most of the 4e innovations, without all the crap we disliked about 4E (everything's a power, yadda yadda).

Skill Challenges were one of the things that most of our group liked about 4e, but they weren't part of SWSE. So, shoehorn 'em in there!

I think this first test worked out well. There is still some tuning needed with the target numbers, etc., but as a whole it worked out very well. SWSE is a story-focused game, and this is a great mechanic to let the players spin some of the yarn.

Goose, try to foster roleplaying and storytelling during these sequences. Allow them the freedom to tell a little bit of the story. "I use my mechanics skill!" is not a valid attempt. Tell them you want something from them like, "there's a vent flap jammed shut on the engine, and the plasma compression is plummeting - I lean down and jam a hydrospanner in the hinge, wedging it open!"

If their storytelling is lackluster, give them a flat roll, or even a -2 if you think they can do better and aren't trying. If they come up with a cool idea, a brilliant plan, or make everyone at the table laugh, reward them with a +2. Through playing other games like the Galactica and Serenity games, and Savage Worlds, we've found that these little rewards can bring backwards, shy roleplayers (like me) out of their shells, and make good roleplayers really shine.

I appreciate the help with ideas here. The roleplay isn't actually what's lacking. I get great roleplay from my guys and gals. What I had been struggling with was how to best get the skills into play. I think I'm getting a better idea on how to do it, while being very flexible in case they come up with skills/ideas that I hadn't thought of at the outset. That is where I had a hard time.

That's the second or third request I've gotten to record on of our Star Wars sessions. I'll talk it over with the guys, and see if they're up for it. I've certainly got access to the technology, it's mostly a question of having the time to edit ... and making sure everyone's cool with the idea.

With regards to running them, I think Erilar's right -- you need to encourage your players to ham it up a bit, and reward them for coming up with creative solutions to a problem. The sample tasks I posted in this write-up are really only starting points (at least the way I run skill challenges). If someone gives me a good reason for allowing a skill and backs it up with a fun narrative, I'll go with that, and likely give them some sort of a bonus to boot.  That +2 bonus that Erilar mention provides a great stick for good role-playing.

At some point I need to sit down and come up with a Skill Challenge DC chart for Star Wars; the 4E one isn't going to work because characters in Star Wars generally have higher max skill scores (at least in the stuff they're good at), but I think it's mostly a question of bumping up the 4E DCs by a few points.

I do want to add that I think that in some ways, playing Plot Point/Bennie systems like  Battlestar Galactica, Serenity, and Savage Worlds have really primed our group for this style of play because they make their rewards to explicit and tangible.

Entertain the group? Ok, here's this chip you can use later in the game to boost your character. That in turn encourages collaborative story telling (particularly in the Cortex games, e.g. Battlestar and Serenity) as players really get into describing what it is that they're trying to do.

Skill challenges don't use bennies or tokens, but they do provide you with a tangible reward (a success in the challenge) for playing up your characters strengths and adding to the overall narrative.

If your players are willing to try something different, you might want to do a one shot of one of BSG or Serenity (or Spirit of the Century, which is another good game for this sort of thing).

 

Ah, I gotcha. Flexibility really is the key, IMHO. There is a temptation with skill challenges to run them as a rigid if/then loop. I think they got some flak from people because they've viewed them as a restrictive, grocery list of options, but in my opinion they work best as a launching off point or framework.

They're basically establishing the loose bounds of what I expect the challenge to encompass, but yeh, if the PCs come up with a great idea, I'll run with it. You might also want to try some on-the-fly skill challenges. We did that with one session of our 4E playtest campaign, in which the players stumbled across a horde of goblins, and suddenly had to make a run for it.

We turned it into a skill challenge on the spot. We brainstormed a few primary skills on the spot, and then we were off. It worked out great, and in fact, I think that's where they really gelled for me.

Oh, yeah. We're big into Savage Worlds stuff, and I have copies off all the games you mentioned. Yep, I'm a nut.

We just finished up an intro series to Wild Cards using Mutants & Masterminds. Everyone had to play themself, but in the Wild Cards universe, and the virus was released once again, but this time in Cleveland. KJ and his wife were especially hilarious. KJ received powers over earth, wind and fire (yes, seriously), and his wife became mistress of plants. So what did they argue about? KJ really, really wanted to work on his lawn. He figured they had great synergy in landscaping powers. And Laura, well, she felt she had to answer to a higher power. Some of the best play I've seen, and very, very fun.

And what made it even more fun was that, out of four nights of play, we had one battle. And it was rather anti-climatic at that due to my really bad rolling of the dice.

I recorded most of it. I should post it somewhere.

Anyway, I'm hoping to run them through a one-shot of Spirit of the Season, for the upcoming holidays.

Goose, maybe when you're setting up Skill Challenges, don't try to anticipate every crazy thing that your players will try to do. Instead, focus on the goal of the skill challenge. Set up a few likely 'paths' to get to the goal, but if a player comes up with a crazy idea, then allow players to justify their own path to the goal. If their idea sounds good, allow it with normal DC checks. If it's a pretty far fetched idea, impose a penalty or just tell them it doesn't work.

Let's look at the race as an example.

The goal is to win the race. Ken listed out several things that you players could do to earn successes toward the 9 successes required.

But maybe the player decides to thin the competition a little by running someone into a wall. It's not really an option you came up with in advance, so how do you incorporate it?

Well, first decide if the action could reasonably help achieve the goal. If there are fewer racers, probably fewer distractions and fewer opponents to mess with you, right? Okay, so let the player make the attempt. Let them make an opposed piloting check.

But maybe running just one guy into the wall (out of 12 racers) doesn't significantly help you 'win the race' because there's still a crowded field. But if the player can take out maybe 2 opposing racers, by whatever means, that counts as a success, because now things are opening up a bit (other racers are trying to stay out of your way, the field is spreading out, etc).

By comparing the players idea against 'the goal of the skill challenge', you have a way to justify successes or failures or even higher requirements (like, you have to disable 2 opponents).

This actually reduces the burden on the DM a bit because you are allowing the players to 'write' the plot of the encounter; the DM is just adjudicating the results.

My question for you, good sir, is how did you like the Skill Challenges in practice? (since this was the first time you had a chance to try them in person rather than hearing about them second-hand)

I liked them. The interrogation was difficult because none of us had persuade or intimidate as a trained skill. 8)

I really enjoyed the mechanics skill challenge (while I was getting shredded) and the race was cool. I too would have enjoyed a longer race with more chance of failure, but for 1st level characters, it was still good.

Actually I really like the poison skills. But either thats the first you used them, the first we ran into them, or (most likely) the first time I realized what was happening. Couple that with the critical success and you get my shock (heh). I do agree with you that with an exceptional result, something else should happen. Perhaps still automatic failure, but you negate the other effects. In this case Highlife still fails because you can't tamper with the computer, but he realizes it at the last second and pulls free just in time to miss the shock.

My other thought, which was sort of half-baked so I didn't run with it on Friday, was to incorporate the vehicle's condition into the Skill Challenge. So instead of achieving a certain number of successes vs. failures, your goal is to move the vehicle up the condition track.

With the speeder we could have started it mid-way on the condition track. Your goal is to restore it to fully operational status, so each success moves it +1 up the track, each failure -1. Reach -5 and your vehicle becomes permanently disabled.

You could use something like this to graft skill challenges into a starship combat. So for example maybe the ship becomes disabled in a firefight. Normally that's game over, but instead it triggers a "System Restore" skill challenge as Highlife, Zulen and the wookie race to get the ship operational again while the Jedi repel borders.

Now Zulen has talents/skills that allow him to jury-rig something operational again for the duration of the encounter, but I see this sort of Skill Challenge as being more of an extended workaround rather than a quick hack.

Something to think about anyway.

I like it, it makes perfect sense.

We had a beat up swoop bike that we 'liberated' from the bad guys. They had tuned up, customized swoops specially made for the race.

It depends on how much detail you want to put into it. If our swoop is starting down the condition track it should already have a penalty to piloting rolls and such. Pre-race maintenance may bring it up a little, but fail a piloting roll during the race and maybe you cut that corner a little close and scraped the stablilzer against the rock face, moving your vehicle down the condition track. Fail really badly and maybe you move down more than one step. :)

Jury-rigging during the race may temporarily improve the condition of the vehicle. Making successful piloting or mechanics checks during the race may do the same.

I especially like the idea for detailing what happens after starship combat. That's just fricking great!

Yeah, with all the starship combat we look to be doing, I think this would be a great option (especially when you consider just how damn dangerous starship combat can be). We could say a ship's disabled at 0 hit points, but that it's intact until it takes negative its hit points in damage. (I think there's a rule that covers disabled vs. destroyed; I can't remember it off the top of my head)

Another cool scenario using this approach is the classic "space hulk" encounter; you find a derelict ship -- what's the first thing you do? Well, while the rest of the crew looks for Reavers, you send the engineers off to get the power back on and the engines working. Instant skill challenge.